On the Origin and Diffusion of European Ball Games: A Linguistic Analysis

On the Origin and Diffusion of European Ball Games: A Linguistic Analysis

By Heiner Gillmeister

Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2009)

Men playing a game Royal 10 E.IV, f.94v

Abstract: In this article, it will be shown how the methods of historical linguistics and dialectology can be brought to bear on elucidating the origins and diffusion of European competitive ball games, and that these methods, in the absence of explicit literary documents constitute almost the only means of doing this. It thus appears that the medieval chivalric tournament served as the model for the ancestor of all, medieval football, and that this came was later the inspiration for other games such as hockey, tennis, and, ultimately, of seemingly unrelated games such as golf.

Introduction: It is a popular belief that modern sports and games originated in England. Today, the very idea has not infrequently a rather melancholic ring for people who still remember the former grandeur of English lawn tennis the last example of which was seen in the performance of the great Fred Perry in the 1930s. For many, another sad the year was 1953 when the English soccer team, invincible hitherto, were for the first time routed on their home ground, Wembley Stadium, by the brilliant Hungarians. Despite their success at the World Championships in 1966, the English never seem to have recovered from this shock.

If we consider the history of sport more generally, it becomes evident that the pre-eminence of British sport is a relatively recent phenomenon and one of rather short duration. Before the nineteenth century, sports and games hardly enjoyed greater popularity in England than in other European countries. During the Middle Ages when the majority of our games came into being, they were even less important in the British Isles than elsewhere. Very often, they made an appearance there after they had for centuries been firmly established on the European continent. Even cricket, England’s national game, seems to have a continental origin, introduced, perhaps with France acting as a go-between, at a time (towards the end of the fifteenth century) when its medieval ancestor was on the point of becoming extinct in its place of origin, the Low Countries. Fortunately, it was the very slowness with which the English found favour with games from the continent which helped cricket to survive. Apparently, they welcomed it on their pastures when its continental adepts no longer considered it fashionable and had begun to forget it.

The popular fallacy that England is the cradle of the majority of our games results, firstly, from the long reign of English sports since the middle of the nineteenth century which today finds its expression in the language of sport in European languages, and, secondly, from sports historiography itself, which to this very day has mostly been of an anecdotal nature and which has very rarely made an attempt at drawing a complete picture. It has to be admitted, however, that sources have seldom been of sufficient quality and number to do this, and this is even more true as one steps back in time. References to sports and games in writings of the Middle Ages, for example, are so isolated and little explicit that historians are in a quandary if they try to determine the origin of the games and their evolution using traditional methods.

We therefore have to look for methods enabling us to tell a coherent story, and in what follows an attempt is made to show that this can be done by the methods of historical linguistics and dialectology. In order to give the reader an idea of what these are like and how suited they are for the investigation of the history of games two examples will be drawn upon.

Click here to read this article from the University of Poznan

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons